Fear and loathing stalk Poland’s shale fields, where a 400-day site occupation stopped a Chevron drill earlier this year.
“Whenever Chevron organised anything, we demonstrated,” said Barbara Siegienczuk, 54, leader of the local anti-shale gas protest group Green Zurawlow in south-eastern Poland. “We made banners and placards and put posters up around the village. Only 96 people live in Zurawlow – children and old people included – but we stopped Chevron!”
For 400 days, farmers and their families from Zurawlow and four nearby villages blockaded a proposed Chevron shale drilling site with tractors and agricultural machinery. Eventually, in July, the company abandoned its plans.
The Zurawlow blockade influenced the UK’s anti-fracking protests at Balcombe in the summer of 2013, and similar battles have flared across Poland since the country became Europe’s front line for shale gas exploration.
A soon-to-be-updated study by the Polish Geological Institute in March 2012 estimated that recoverable shale gas volumes under the country at between 346bn and 768bn cubic metres – the third biggest in Europe and enough to supply the country’s gas needs for between 35 and 65 years.
Bordering volatile Ukraine and heavily reliant on gas from Putin’s Russia, the promise of secure domestically-produced energy made politicians sit up. A year earlier, in September 2011, the country’s then-president Donald Tusk made a bold claim that the shale industry would begin commercial drilling in 2014.
“After years of dependence on our large neighbour (Russia), today we can say that my generation will see the day when we will be independent in the area of natural gas and we will be setting terms,” he said, adding that well conducted exploration, “would not pose a danger to the environment.”
But things haven’t turned out that way. Plans for a shale gas-fuelled economic revival appear to be evaporating as test wells have not performed as expected or have suffered regulatory delays. Foreign investors have pulled out and sustained environmental protests like that in Zurawlow have hampered drilling plans.